LeeN: Call me Jesse-Lee
The MC and 'skinny black nerd' believes freestyling can take people to amazing places – if they'd just drop the facade...
Excursions is all about discovering connections with like-minded people. Hence we got excited when we encountered LeeN, the man behind the ELITE Leagues freestyle collective, who offered his endless effortless flows to our night in October. Here he is in his own words...
I grew up in the Caribbean. As a kid I was into everything from Phil Collins and Genesis to R&B. I really got into hip-hop with Bone Thugs & Harmony, especially how well the production worked with the vocals. That was around 1995. But by the time I left the Caribbean for the UK in ’99 I’d grown out of the thuggish music. ‘The sound’s good,’ I thought, ‘but they’re chatting a lot of shit.'
The ego is the main barrier in freestyling too, but all that braggadocio stuff is just a self-defense mechanism. When I teach classes I let my students go on that stuff for 20-30 minutes, until they eventually run out of steam. Once you crack that ground the subconscious comes into play and you find a lot of intimate, private stuff, the real stuff. The trouble is, lots of MCs don’t feel emotionally secure enough to let go and access these places when they don’t know what they are going to say next. And when they are conscious of what they’re saying it’s amazing how crass and misogynistic it all is: it's all big dicks and what they’ve done to your sister. That is a very strange mental block.
Last night a 13-year-old kid rode up on his scooter outside the pub and started mouthing off: 'If you don’t battle me you're a pussy!'
My first freestyle was an accident. After arriving in the UK I’d given up geography to study expressive arts, and we had to stage a musical play. One guy had written a song that wasn’t allowed in the show, so he sabotaged the first night by not showing up. That left me doing scenes with his understudy, who forgot the words halfway through one song and ran off stage.
Baptism of fire
So I’m on stage alone in the middle of a piece – I realized I had to keep the play moving, to tell the story in song. It had to make sense, and I had to do it now. I blanked into a flow state and improvised it. I didn’t know what I’d just done, all I knew was it gave me a real buzz. ‘That’s freestyling,’ a brother’s mate told me. ‘That’s what rappers do.’
He told me to come round to his house. He pulled out a crate full of underground hip-hop: Quannum, Blackalicious, Madlib, Peanut Butter Wolf – all in one big hit. I heard [Blackalicious MC] Gift of Gab freestyling for the first time, and never went back. To this day Blackalicious are still my favourite group. They may not be the best, but they are my favourite. Gab’s freestyle is fluent, smooth and seamless, like he’s another instrument in the beat.
Doing your own thing
I was soon making lots of noise in UK rap – releasing lots of songs on the internet, all zany and free. But I took a lot of licks – people saying I was rubbish, that they didn't get me, and that I couldn’t play with them. I’d always had a reputation for being a fun-loving dude, but that guy got squashed somewhere in all this. I’d love to have him back.
I disappeared from 2004 and developed my freestyle on my own terms. When I popped back up in 2008, UK hip-hop had suffered. That’s when I realized I wasn’t shit – they were just pissed off with the world and didn’t know how to take someone who wasn’t as pissed off as they were. To me the whole freestyle thing goes beyond rap. It’s universal communication, an exchange of energy. It’s all about being grown – being mature enough to handle going to these places inside ourselves. I feel like I’ve been on a journey and found a level of freestyling, and now I’m helping others go there too.
Please stand up
I guess I've been trying to build a movement, but I feel it hasn’t worked. Something’s missing. Partly I think it’s the new breed of MC.
Last night a 13-year-old kid rode up on his scooter outside the pub and started mouthing off: ‘If you don’t battle me you’re a pussy.’ He was soon rapping about how his mum’s a cunt, and he wished she’d die. He then said that was just Eminem-style rap.
I’m so amazed at how misled and insular many people’s view of hip-hop is. We will all prosper a whole lot more when hip-hop starts acting its age. I have to say it’s nice when I get chance to drop LeeN the rapper, as that gets tiring after a while, and just be Jesse-Lee, a guy who can freestyle quite well.
LeeN runs NLT Productions and the ELITE Leagues freestyle collective. He'll hopefully be back at Excursions on 27 November.